The two Tories showing it’s the Freedom in FOI – and the press in general – they really can’t stand

If ever there was any doubt about the motives behind the Conservatives’ review of Freedom Of Information, leader of the Commons Chris Grayling has surely set the record straight.

Speaking in the Commons this week, he said:

The irony is that the person who said that he regretted the Freedom of Information Act 2000 most was the former Member of Parliament Jack Straw, who introduced it. He said that he looked back on it as one of the things that he had got wrong. This Government are committed to the Act, but we want to ensure that it works well and fairly, and cannot be abused or misused. It is, on occasion, misused by those who use it as, effectively, a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable. It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how Governments make decisions, and this Government do not intend to change that.

His comments have been widely reported. The fact his comments are recorded in Hansard mean Grayling – who previously fell out of favour after announcing that he felt hotel owners had the right to turn gay couples away – can’t complain about being misquoted this time.

You can only speculate as to why he’s said what he has said. Being charitable, maybe he was just being honest. More likely, however, is the fact that the fervour in Whitehall to reign in the the FOI Act means it’s all but a given in many minds that it will be.

The fact Grayling quotes Jack Straw, one of the members of the Commission reviewing the Act, reminds us of why Straw should be playing no active part in a review of something he’s already passed judgement on. It’s therefore encouraging to see Labour becoming vocal on the issue and have made it clear Straw is not acting on their behalf. He’s a dangerous loose cannon still smarting from being caught out by journalists touting his services in Parliament to would-be post-politics employers several months ago.

So Labour needs to fight hard here, and the early signs are positive. Indeed, it was a question from Labour’s Jack Dromey which prompted Grayling’s answer.  

But there’s a wider reason to be concerned about the Conservative approach to open debate and discussion of what they do. During the General Election, we regularly heard stories of journalists being kept at bay when Team Cameron rode into town. It soon became obvious towns like Middlesbrough and Huddersfield were little more than scenic backdrops for a political message, rather than towns worthy of personal attention from the passing PM.

Nothing, it seemed, should be allowed to derail the Conservative message. And that view appears to be continuing now, if the decision by James Wharton, a Darlington MP and the minister for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, is anything to go by.

Have a look at this Facebook post:

Wharton told his 2,600 followers on Facebook – roughly 20% of the number of people who choose to follow the North Echo on Facebook – that:

I would again ask that any constituent with a concern about anything they read in the Echo please feel free to contact me directly. Or even better, don’t read it. There are other ways to get more balanced local news.

In other words, Wharton didn’t like being held to account by a local newspaper and tried to dodge talking to them but then got upset when they ran ‘no comment.’ He then started issuing statements to the paper instead but won’t talk to then. Now he encourages his constituents not to buy that paper?

Maybe it’s just coincidence that Wharton feels bold enough to start shouting down a local newspaper at a time when the government is looking to water down FOI. The Northern Echo stands accused of criticising Mr Wharton. FOI is the best tool journalists have to get information undiluted by political spin.

For me, the actions of Mr Wharton and the answer by Mr Grayling tells us an awful lot about their view of the media in this country – and it’s for that reason that we have to fight very hard to save FOI. Conservatives are very good at saying they want to be held to account, but as ever, actions are speaking louder than words. And crikey, their words alone are loud enough.

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